State ed board needs do-over on funding formula

November 7, 2013 

The state Board of Education has come out with a first draft of rules to implement the state’s new education funding formula. Across the political spectrum, people who worked hard for passage of the new law and supported the governor feel betrayed.

The new law, they thought, was clear. Local school districts no longer would have to spend money on a host of “categorical” programs dictated by the state. Instead, they would get a base per-pupil amount to cover the basic cost of education for the average student, plus extra funding for students with greater needs.

Gov. Jerry Brown had clearly explained why: “Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges.” He needs to make it clear now that he still stands by this important principle.

Under the law, the state board has until Jan. 31 to come up with rules that “govern the expenditure of funds” to “increase or improve services” for disadvantaged students “in proportion to the increase in funds” based on their number and concentration in a school district.

The first draft is shockingly off the mark. As the critics note, “It would allow school districts to spend the money any way they wish without having to demonstrate that they are using state funds to increase or improve services for disadvantaged students.”

Under the draft, school districts could choose between three options: spend more, provide more or achieve more. The possible perversities of this scheme are endless.

Because the “provide more” option is delinked from the “spend more” option, school districts could claim to “spend more” on high-need students – for example, decreasing class sizes for all students – without actually increasing or improving services for disadvantaged students.

But it is the “achieve more” option that is the big problem. It doesn’t require money or services to go to disadvantaged students at all. A district could improve its Academic Performance Index by one point over two years without ever increasing services to disadvantaged students. It would be free to spend its extra dollars on anything – such as a new football stadium or a salary increase for teachers.

Moreover, don’t forget that the Legislature passed and Gov. Brown signed a bill labeled “Pupil assessments: Temporary suspension.” We will have a year or more with no statewide information on student progress.

We all know how this kind of flexibility worked out in the past. State money for education went to those with the most powerful voices – teachers who pushed for higher pay and schools in more affluent areas.

California needs to make sure the new school funding formula works as promised. Gov. Brown needs to speak out, and the state board should direct staff to go back and redraft rules that make the grade.

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